The Curate’s Egg: We Need Courage To Deliver Best Public Procurement Outcomes

We're pleased to feature this guest article from  Steve Burton, health & social care category manager at public sector collaborative buying organisation, ESPO.

After years, even decades, involved with a professional buying organisation (PBO), I can’t help thinking that public procurement remains the proverbial curate’s egg. Like the curate’s egg, this is both a good thing and a bad. It’s good because people spending public money must, absolutely, be accountable for it, and suppliers must absolutely have a right to know precisely what they need to do to be successful.

But it’s a bad thing if the rules and the remedies backing them up make people afraid to do anything other than slavishly follow them, in a sort of ‘tick-box’ process. If forensic scrutiny of purchasing decisions is being motivated by the chance of catching a council or an NHS trust out over some technicality to gain a re-run of the competition, it’s unhelpful for all concerned.

Putting it bluntly, fear of being challenged deters procurement departments from acting innovatively, imaginatively or even (sad to say) commercially, when modest changes to interpreting the rules could deliver better outcomes.

Take the idea of ‘open frameworks’, for example. By exploiting the freedoms permitted in social care procurement, devising a fair and transparent way for new providers to join an existing framework sustains a dynamic provider market and increases choice for service users. In a real life example for day care supported living services, it has proved highly effective in dramatically reducing the weight (and cost) of ‘procedure’. It’s a market-friendly solution that has simplified things for service providers and commissioners alike.

And take the example of the new EU regulations being implemented this year. One has the nagging feeling that the new regulations have somehow missed a trick. Yes, there is the new ‘light touch’ for health and social care procurement ‒ providing the opportunity for procurers to assess bids on a common sense basis ‒ and this could have been applied across the public sector realm. But in some ways, the health and social care parts excepted, the spirit of the latest regulations seems as prescriptive as that which went before.

So the perception of many professionals remains that the overall impact of procurement legislation is probably too strongly weighted in suppliers’ favour ‒ while the EU regulations themselves are still preoccupied with points of procedural detail.

The regulations should be about establishing principles of objectivity, fairness, transparency and so on ‒ and then leave it to the proficiency of the procurement professionals to secure the best performance outcome for a hospital trust, CCG and care home while achieving necessary regulatory compliance.

It is likely that public procurement will remain a vital element in delivering public services with established public buying consortia – helping to strike a balance between the apparent continuation of prescriptive regulation and those involved in procurement beginning to explore some of the scope for wider innovations introduced by a lighter regulatory touch.

With the new procurement regulations giving us (in certain areas) greater freedoms (for instance, the freedom to adopt appropriate procurement timescales, as opposed to ones arbitrarily mandated in legislation), procurers really must develop the confidence to make the most of this opportunity. So far, however, there’s limited sign of an appetite for doing things differently, or more worryingly, the courage to do so.

In the health sector, it will be interesting to see how this fundamental regulatory change works in practice, alongside the seemingly contrary aspiration of giving patients the ultimate choice of where and how they are treated. In the social care field, such ‘consumer choice’ has already led to the abandonment of a number of fixed contract arrangements – begging the question: how can commissioners commit to a contract when the people they are commissioning for may decide to take their business elsewhere?

Clearly we can't overrule patient or service user choice just to make procurement easier, but what we can do is work imaginatively with service providers, sharing the risks and benefits. For instance, we know we can no longer promise a service provider the council’s entire homecare business; but what we can do is guarantee them all the homecare services the council is empowered to commission, and so incentivise them to promote themselves to ‘consumers’ rather than sitting back and seeing work drift away. Councils should resist the simple solution of resorting to a weak framework agreement ‘because we can't guarantee work’. And to be fair, a rising number of authorities are now grasping this and are exploring better solutions.

Despite advances, commissioners, buying organisations and suppliers all need to do more to find a commercially-focused balance between risk and compliance to genuinely deliver best public procurement outcomes in health and social care and wider public services.

Steve Burton joined ESPO in 1982 and has helped a range of health and social care organisation meet care outcomes over many years. He retires from the Leicester-based professional buying organisation next month. We wish him well with that!

First Voice

  1. Dan:

    Good post. Its worth noting though that the EU regs apply to the whole EU – particularly those former Eastern Bloc countries that don’t the same protocols or culture when it comes to transparency and fairness. While in the UK great progress has been made in upskilling public procurers (though bad practice is probably more widespread than you’d think) we’re forced to move at the pace of the slowest member of the EU.

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